All Smiles? 

McSweeney's: no laughing matter.

Created in Darkness

by Troubled Americans:

The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category

Foreword by Harry Magnan,

Exalted Ruler of Elks Lodge No. 3

Edited by Dave Eggers, Kevin Shay, Lee Epstein, John Warner, & Suzanne Kleid

Knopf, 239 pp., $16.95

In his introduction to Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, editor Dave Eggers writes that his Web site and journal McSweeney's "hoped to make a home for stories that were funny without being humorous." This is in addition to McSweeney's mission to publish "experimental fiction and journalism." This is despite the very subtitle of Created in Darkness, "The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category."

Well, what'll it be? Funny stories that aren't humorous but fall into the humor category? Stories that aren't humorous and aren't funny is more like it. (Prime example in this collection: "How Important Moments in My Life Would Have Been Different If I Was Shot in the Stomach" by Jake Swearingen.)

But why stop at stories? The lists that fill this book -- "Canceled Regional Morning TV Shows" (e.g., I Said Wake the Hell Up, Knoxville! Jesus!); "Actual Academic Journals Which Could Be Broadway Shows If They Had Exclamation Points Added!" (e.g., Yale Journal of Criticism!); "Bad Names for Professional Wrestlers" (e.g., The Wilting Zinnia); and "Capitalized Words and Phrases Appearing in The Official Sea-Monkey Handbook" (e.g., "More" [twice]) -- are nothing to write home about either. But by God (or Eggers), they found a home at McSweeney's.

On the bright side, though: "The Dance Lesson" by Tim Carvell does get good mileage out of the rising angry comments of a dance teacher instructing her (his?) unheard-from dance partner. "Attack of the Fabulons!" by Mark O'Donnell nails the camp quotient when sci-fi B-movies are crossed with high-fashion space invaders. ("We've just received word, General. The aliens have destroyed Earth's last remaining Gabor sister.") "Goofus, Gallant, Rashomon" by Jim Stallard updates, and upends, the good/bad duo you remember from Highlights for Children. And "Rapper or Toiletry?" by Mike Daulton is, for once, a list that works. (Question: "Nice & Smooth" -- toiletry or rapper? Answer: rapper. "Q-Tip"? Answer: toiletry and rapper.)

But the one word for Todd Pruzan's three-page, heavily footnoted analysis of "A Short Fictional Passage Entitled 'Drift Nets,' in Which Several Enterprising Characters Troll the High Seas, Exploring Abandoned Trade Vessels for 'Pirated' Goods, and Learn To Cope with Distinct Personalities in a Close-Knit, High-Stress Environment": obnoxious.

For an analysis of comic writing on an astronomically higher level of intellect, see The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel (Farrar Straus Giroux) by James Wood, literary editor at The New Republic. But, like the troubled Americans who submit to McSweeney's, it's no laughing matter. Wood calls his topic the "comedy of irresponsibility," and he borrows from Freud (who distinguished between humor, comedy, and jokes -- just like Eggers?) to describe it as "the humor that smiles through tears." Think of Cervantes, Shakespeare, and modern masters on both sides of the Atlantic -- Isaac Babel, Italo Svevo, Joseph Roth, Saul Bellow, and Henry Green -- and you get the idea. Tom Wolfe gets the shaft. Newcomers Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith get a cautious thumbs up. •

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